“O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see the lie…” (Philip Brooks, 1868)
I took my usual walk this morning. I hadn’t intended to, hoping to sleep in a while before getting started on a busy day, but my Monday-Friday internal clock got the better of me and so I got up and dressed in the multiple layers necessary to stave off the cold, and I headed down Meadow Lane.
It was only a little after 5 of course and still very dark. The first thing I noticed was the brightness of the stars in the sky on this clear early morning. The next thing I noticed was that I could hear the geese which have traveled no further south this winter — honking in the distance. And then I noticed that a good twenty minutes into my walk I had not yet encountered another human being awake and about — not on foot and not in a vehicle of any kind. It’s Saturday, of course, and Christmas Eve at that, and of course many find themselves following different routines today, but even so, I know that firefighters and police officers and emergency room nurses are on the job. And a host of others will soon be on their way to work to accommodate all the last minute shoppers who will be on the hunt for that perfect gift they just hadn’t gotten around to purchasing yet. Soon, now, many of us will be packing up to travel to be with dear ones at a distance for a holiday gathering and perhaps an hour at worship where we will sing the carols we have known our whole lives long and where candlelight and the strains of Silent Night will bear us up, fill us up… So yes, I was a little surprised at the quiet of that early morning hour. And grateful for it, too. For quiet is not often ours to enjoy and to be nurtured in. Perhaps it never was.
In fact I found myself thinking of that little town of Bethlehem we sing of every Christmas Eve. And I wonder at how ‘still’ it really was… I mean from the little we are told in the old familiar story, the town was filled to capacity and beyond by the out of town guests —- those many, many distant family members who were forced to make this journey ‘home’ to be counted by the occupying government. We know the story well, of course — that there was literally no place left for Mary and Joseph to settle in that night — even in Mary’s precarious condition —-and so it is that the crèches which adorn my home this season all hold not just Mary and Joseph and a new born baby, some traveling royalty and some shepherds, but also a cow, a goat, a sheep…. I doubt the stable itself was that quiet that night. I’m fairly confident the town of Bethlehem wasn’t either… although maybe, for those who were awake and paying attention, maybe at 5 am for a little while a kind of stillness could be found.
Even so, I imagine even then that most had no idea of the wonder that had taken place in their own back yard. And for those who did, perhaps they simply looked with pity on this young woman who was forced to give birth to this baby in such unlikely circumstances so far from home. I wonder now how many had the stillness of place and time and heart to take notice. No, I don’t expect it was especially quiet in Bethlehem that first Christmas … perhaps it was only that Philip Brooks, the writer of the familiar carol, imposed his own experience upon the story. In fact, it is said that he penned these familiar words in 1868 after taking a trip to the Holy Land — after finding himself looking down at Bethlehem from the hills of Palestine at some distance… no doubt it looked ‘still’ from there, but down there in the middle of it all? Probably there was not much stillness to be had.
And so I found myself grateful today that I got up anyway and took the walk I always take. I was grateful for the unexpected quiet before this busy day which I had better get moving on or I’ll be late… I was grateful for the time to pause and wonder at this ancient story which means everything to us still … to consider again how God works in times and places and ways unexpected…perhaps especially in moments of stillness when we expected only noise…
My hope for all of you is that there will be some moment of stillness in this busy day for you. May you know the stillness of mind and heart and spirit which enables you to receive the true gift of Christmas which was intended for you. Indeed, may the love and the peace of the Christ Child embrace you now.